The Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz will face off tonight for the second time this season, this time in Houston. The Rockets visited Salt Lake City on Nov. 19 and lost 102-91. James Harden was ill that night and did not play in the second half.
The circumstances are different entering this game, as Houston appears to have shaken off the bad streak and won three of its last four. More importantly, they have home-court advantage, and are 5-3 at home.
Utah, on the other hand, has performed well this season. The team is 9-7 and in second place in the deep and tough Northwest Division, just three games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder. Their best production comes from the frontcourt, which could be the difference-maker against the run-and-gun Rockets.
But it's not going to be easy for the Jazz in Houston. Harden is healthy again and has averaged 21.6 points and six assists over his past five games, and he'll want some redemption against Utah after missing the second half of the Nov. 19 game.
Utah will be wanting to win and keep pace in their division, so they will surely exhibit some tough defense in what is sure to be a great game all around.
Time: Saturday, Dec. 1, 8:00 p.m. EST
TV: CSN Houston, Root Sports Utah
Records: Utah Jazz (9-7) vs. Houston Rockets (7-8)
Betting Lines: Utah (+5 1/2), Houston (-5 1/2)
Injuries: Chandler Parsons (shoulder, doubtful), Carlos Delfino (groin, out), Cole Aldrich (ankle, out), Mo Williams (foot, probable)
Key Storyline: Was Houston's Loss to Utah a Fluke?
Houston lost to Utah on Nov. 19, and the whole team just played terribly. Granted, star guard James Harden was sick, and only managed six points on 1-of-6 shooting in 17 minutes.
The rest of the team just appeared to crumble without him. Their collective field-goal percentage was just 35, and they shot just 33 percent from long range.
The Rockets squad that has shown up at recent games has been totally different. Harden is starting to play defense and create plays again, rather than just shoot, and even Jeremy Lin appears to be turning things around.
The Harvard grad is averaging just 10.4 points and 5.4 assists over that stretch, but he has shot 44 percent from the field compared to just 38 percent for the season.
That said, the Rockets will definitely look like a better team against Utah this time around. Harden is healthy and will be back in action, and the rest of his teammates will be ready to play.
Houston is also at an advantage because they have played well at home this season, going 5-3 at the Toyota Center. This is where Utah will be at a disadvantage.
All seven of the Jazz's losses have come on the road, compared to just three wins. They may have defeated the fast-paced Rockets before, but the circumstances are different this time around. Houston has Harden back in action, and he's going to be looking to have a big game to get Houston back in the win column.
Key Matchup: Al Jefferson vs. Omer Asik
The most important battle in this game is going to be the battle of the bigs. Al Jefferson has been one of the NBA's best centers for a few years now, and he has averaged 16.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per game this season. He performed well in Utah's first game against Houston, scoring 14 points and grabbing 16 rebounds, but shot just 4-of-12 from the field.
Jefferson was also able to best Rockets center Omer Asik, who currently ranks third in the NBA with 12.3 boards per contest. In the Nov. 19 game, Asik did not make any of his field goals and was limited to two points and seven rebounds. He was clearly slowed by the altitude in Salt Lake City, and watching him huff and puff down the court was disheartening to watch.
On his home court, with altitude out of the equation, the Turkish seven-footer will look to get his revenge and absolutely dominate Jefferson. He is averaging 10.8 points and 11.4 rebounds over his last five games, and that includes an 18-point and 14-rebound effort against the New York Knicks.
Still, the odds are in Jefferson's favor in this battle. He is only a year older than Asik, but is in his ninth NBA season whereas Asik is only in his third. Experience is the name of the game in the paint, and Jefferson will use his to his advantage in what will surely be an epic battle under the basket.
X-Factor: James Harden
Forward Chandler Parsons is probably going to miss this game with a sore shoulder, which makes it even more important that James Harden has a great game tonight. The reigning Sixth Man of the Year has flourished as a starter in Houston, averaging 24.5 points and 5.3 assists per game.
He abandoned his playmaking abilities and focused solely on scoring during Houston's rough stretch, but has become more prone to passing the ball in recent games. Against the Toronto Raptors on Nov. 27, Harden scored 24 points and also dished out 12 assists in a 117-104 victory.
Harden needs to play a similar game tonight. He won't have a tough defender guarding him in either Randy Foye or Gordon Hayward, but he should not use that as an excuse to shoot the ball impulsively or play selfishly.
The Rockets run-and-gun game is dependent on Harden being just the type of player he was in Houston. Not only does he need to score points effectively, but he also needs to play tough defense and create plays for his teammates.
Against a Jazz team that has struggled on the road all season long, and with a rowdy home crowd cheering him on, this shouldn't be at all difficult.
The Jazz are a talented team, but their road woes will continue against the hungry Houston Rockets. Jefferson will likely outclass Asik in the paint, but Patrick Patterson will step up and win his battle against Paul Millsap.
Most important of all, Harden will come back with a vengeance and absolutely go off on Utah. He'll sink threes, make his mid-range jump shots, and maybe throw down one of his legendary dunks.
Who will win?
Harden will also have a good night in the passing department, creating plays left and right as the Jazz just stand and scratch their heads. He will also play some fine defense, be it through rebounding or steals.
Even Jeremy Lin should have a good game, with the rest of his teammates performing well and the score-first Mo Williams guarding him. He may not be the best in scoring tonight, but will dish off some pretty passes and play tough defense, per usual.
Utah will make a strong run at victory, but it just won't be enough. Houston plays too well at home and will reinforce that point tonight.
Houston Rockets 102, Utah Jazz 95